I am a brash and jaded eighteen-year-old. I sulk in my seat next to Aunty Yilan on a fourteen-hour flight from Honolulu to Shanghai. It is my first return since I left for Berlin at the age of four. No one had asked if I wanted to go. No, this two-week trip was a mandate from my Chinese family.
Before we land, Aunty Yilan reminds me not to speak in public because it would reveal to strangers that I’m not actually Chinese despite my very Chinese- looking face.
I open my mouth to close on the irony: I understood what is being said to me, about me, and in front of me, but can only respond in English.
What’s wrong with her? Is she sick?
Long index fingers point out my differences: my eyes are too big, my complexion too dark, my nose too straight. I am not Chinese enough. Shaking their heads, they sigh in pity at Aunty Yilan, like she is cursed.
My Chinese relatives fear silence unless food is present. I must have eaten at a dozen different restaurants. I must have met ten different relatives each night. Yet I cannot distinguish one restaurant from another relative.
Each night begins with a question posed at me and answered for me:
Does she need a fork? asked relative-X.
Thankfully, we’ve taught her how to use chopsticks, replied Aunty Yilan. I smile and roll my eyes around the windowless dining room.
Would she like soda? asked relative-B.
CO-KA-CO-LAH?? is spelt out in my face.
No, she’s not that American. She’ll drink tea, replied Aunty Yilan.
You know, soda is very fashionable now. All the young people drink it, said relative-A’s wife. She jerked her head at cousin-D, who stared straight into her cellphone.
What I wanted was a glass of ice water, an impossible request as ice is not readily available. Bottled water is reserved for sweaty Americans. The Chinese in China believe cold water is bad for body circulation—a mantra repeated every time I hold up an empty glass.
Cold makes blood stop and heart hurt, explained relative-C in his perfect English.
My paternal and maternal grandparents battled over me. When I was born, my parents left me in the care of my two sets of grandparents while they went abroad for work. Each set always recounts how I was ushered from one apartment to another. Each set has a competing idea of the woman I will grow up to become.
My maternal grandparents are both retired university professors. In addition to Mandarin Chinese, my Nagbu, maternal grandma, is fluent in Russian and Japanese. She was the head of the foreign language department at Fudan University, a prestigious institution in China. My Nagong, maternal grandpa, taught western philosophy at Shanghai Normal University. He still recounts the brief stint where he was forced to kneel on crushed glass as his former students accused him of treason during the Cultural Revolution.
In contrast, my Yeye, paternal grandfather, once owned the largest tea monopoly in Shanghai. I was born above an old teashop front that the Communist Party allowed Yeye to occupy after seizing all of his other assets. My paternal grandmother’s family specializes in making clay tea sets. Their marriage was arranged like a business transaction between two monopolies. A proud woman, my Nainai, paternal grandmother, often boasts about her three wealthy, successful sons.
Both sets weigh in their sufferings. How much things have changed since the Cultural Revolution. How it will be different for me. They surround me with their negative hope.
Unknown to me, my father had remarried, divorced, and then married again for the third time. I meet her during my ten-day trip back to Shanghai.
My visit started in a gray van driven by my new stepmother. A pink-blue toy poodle sat up front, in the passenger seat next to her white COACH purse.
My father was conveniently too busy to come along to lunch. I climbed in the middle row between my Yeye and Nainai. The poodle panted in excitement as I am introduced to the hired translator seated in back row, next to my baby cousin.
The car jerked left and then right before stopping in front some famous restaurant in Pudong District of Shanghai. I grasped the headrest of the front seat for support. My stepmother, with her pink-blue poodle in her arm, led the way.
When finally seated, I am asked if I have ever eaten turtle, shark, bald eagle, or drunken shrimp? Upon my answer of no, my stepmother ordered all of them to be slaughtered and served. She added a whole pheasant to the mix, for a lucky reunion.
Dribbles of shark-fin soup, ashen turtle from an upside down shell, and phallic strips of bald eagle loomed before me. Then the main highlight: live-river shrimp drowned in 90-proof alcohol. I politely turned it down.
My baby cousin impaled a river shrimp with his fork. He had requested a fork when I refused one earlier. He plopped the lower half of a shrimp into his mouth. Two antennas wiggled grotesquely around his lips. Bemused, I complimented him on his new mustache. Disapprovingly, the translator pretended not to hear me. Within a few moments, he pulled the now disembodied head out from his mouth and spat out the bits of chewed shell into his bowl. After one last hack of shell, he wrapped his lips around the torn neck and slurped out bits of gray matter.
My grandparents’ eyes shined as they watched my hands move about the table. They piled food into my bowl. I chewed and swallowed. Fish bones separated from soft flesh. Cartilage dislodged from knobs of meat. I am complimented on how well I used my chopsticks.
At the end of our meal, my grandparents and I do not hug. Our bodies stiffened at the nearness of one another, trapped in our own sphere of silence. But as I turned away, they grabbed my hand and patted my back.
In Honolulu, my mother signs me up for Chinese calligraphy school. My mother signs me up for watercolors. My mother signs me up for piano. My mother signs me up for ballet, tennis, and swimming.
Stubborn and alone, I am sent home for throwing paint, for teasing the other kids, for not listening.
My mother, desperate for me to remember, speaks in a broken tongue. In the stillness of Sunday afternoons, she guides me through rows of Chinese calligraphy.
The grind of ink. Swirls of black in water jars. Switch-shuffle of rice paper sheets. Humid air hangs between us. Endless squares wait for my brush to fill.
Composition of characters. Left to right, top to bottom – she drills the same sequence of strokes over and over. Black smears my right pinky. Watery ink evaporates after each stroke. I trace and retrace one stroke after another. Crossing and recrossing the squares, I twirl the brush.
Blank white looms before me. Mind numbed, my ear no longer hears her. My fingers crease the corners of white paper. Sheets rustle and wrinkle under my palm before tearing. I drop the brush and wait for her to disappear.
小妖 Xiao Yao, Little Demon, my Nagbu, grandma, used to call me.
Since 小 is little or small, this nickname is an affectionate form of chiding a child.
妖 is phonetically similar to 要, but means witch, evil, or a supernatural spirit:
夭 = (yao) a premature death
女(nü) woman + 夭 = 妖
When a woman stands next to premature death, she becomes a witch, a monster possessed by strange evil.
夭 resembles the character for heaven, sky:
天= (tian) heaven, sky
Straight and rigid, 天 parallels order, as the two lines section sky from ground. The down slant of 夭 breaks the rigid order. Heaven strikes down to ground, a premature death. A disturbance of order.
Good is a six-stroked composite figure of two characters:
子= (zi) child
女 joins 子to symbolize the good between woman and child. Alone each of these two characters represents a separate word. Combined, they transform from the category of characters to radicals and form a new word, a new definition:
A composition of balance and completion, good is seen when a woman stands next to her child. Since Chinese is written and read from left to right, top to bottom, the bound 女 is neutralized. The eye and hand stop on the right side of the page, the focus ends on 子. Effaced and overshadowed by her child, the woman is completed by this sense of goodness.
A cousin of mine in Shanghai wanted a child, believing it would complete her life. When she got pregnant, she was overjoyed. Consumed by the prospect of completion, she pulled longer hours at her advertisement company. Five months into her pregnancy, on a flight back from Singapore, she was quarantined for bird flu because she had a fever. Landing in Shanghai after spending three days in quarantine, she returned to the office. After the first long day, she fainted by her desk. A trail of blood smeared her chair as her coworkers lifted her limp body from behind the desk and rushed her to the hospital. That night she miscarried.
In her hospital room, I tasted a metallic stillness in the air. Dark in the afternoon light, her pale face met mine. Eyes dry, she scanned the dark corners of the room for something unseen. Nonplussed, her mother patted her arm and told her this was normal. Every woman goes through this. Propped upright with a thin blanket tucked around her slender belly, my cousin stared blankly at her mother’s mouth. As if her mother’s words floated above her face, incomprehensible. An incident not worth holding on to. Forget about it. Move on. As if her eyes could ward off those words from sinking into her body.
Her mother turned to my mother for affirmation. My mother nodded. Stop overreacting and being so melodramatic. All women go through this. They both went on to recount the number of personal miscarriages they had before having us, along with a list of friends who had more impressive totals. Before leaving, my mother looked knowingly at my cousin. I give you half a year to try again.
Goodness is created, recreated, procreated in a woman. Miscarriages are a part of creation, as failures are a part of living. When my Aunty Yilan in Hawaii heard about my cousin, she clicked her tongue but confirmed that this was a necessary spasm to undergo for a new future. She rattled a few more names of women who had miscarriages. She then paused before recounting her own loneliness when she chose to get an abortion in Berlin. Childless, she reaffirms it was the right decision.
A generative machine, unseen behind the shade of her child’s embrace, a woman is good only when she reproduces. Successfully. Yet it is not this fear of failure that reinforces my decision to be childless. It is the simplicity of choice. My ability to choose my self over another fills me with goodness and completion. A selfishness to retain my body for my self, to be good without being overshadowed.
Want is a nine-stroked character of a covered woman:
女 (nü) Woman
From top to bottom, a woman sits underneath 西. Cover the woman to show desire for her. Gestures and obfuscation hold the mind’s attention. Her outline coerces the mind. The mystique of a woman is built. She becomes the demand, the need.
If want is female, then a wanton is a promiscuous woman, who uses her sex as a tool to control the actions of those around her. Perhaps a woman is called a wanton because she does not display the need to cover her body. The mystique of a woman vanishes when a woman is seen uncovered and whole. The ease of her fullness results in rejection. She is no longer wanted.
Wanton sounds like wonton, which is a delicious ball of meat and cabbage my Nagbu, maternal Grandma, wraps in a thin flour skin and boils in chicken broth. She would make this every Sunday when I was a child in Shanghai. I still marvel at the delicacy of the act. The dexterity of wrinkled fingers moving about a ball of pork, an art I never had the chance to learn from her.
Fidgeting by the doorway of the kitchen, I watched as her outline moved from bowls to pots. Hunched over the counter, sunlight lit the crane of neck and shoulders. She would turn and catch me staring up at her. Shooing me away to go play, her shrunken frame reclaimed the sunlit counter.
I was her treasured baobei, her second chance to be the mother she never was to her own daughters. I was not allowed to step inside and learn how to fold flour about meat. It was beneath me, this desire to find belonging in a kitchen. My place is outside, beyond the confines of the rusted gas stove, as it once was for her. I should want to run a room full of people, or in her case, the department of Fudan University’s foreign language. My decisions should hold more weight than what to make for lunch tomorrow.
A sense of withholding incites curiosity. Delighted, I always scalded my tongue as I gulped down one wonton after another. I could never learn to wait, to blow steam away.
Nagbu never revealed what she wrapped inside. She always waited for my spoon to push open my lips before dipping hers. Eyes averted, she swallowed her spoonful quietly. As if the spoon held her tears that once smeared the telephone receiver when I called in German and then later in English. Tongues scalded by forgotten words, the silence between us grew.
She always waited. But by the time I was old enough to see her, she had waited too long. The soup had grown cold and globs of grease had congealed at the top. I can see her now at her sunlit counter, folding flour over meat, each crease seals her hopes into a savory juice that will one day flow over my Chinese tongue again.
Peace is a six-stroked character of a woman beneath a roof:
宀 (mian) roof
女 (nü) woman
安 (an) peace
Outside the confines of a roof, she is wild, an unknown force. See how the two phonetic sounds of “mian” and “nü,” are neutralized into short “an.” The mouth opens and emits sharp gasp of “an.” A short burst of air that mimics her startled cry, before she is stilled into pacification. Sign of security, a confined woman brings contentment and tranquility to all.
A few weeks before I left Shanghai for Berlin, my Nainai, paternal grandmother, took my four-year-old self to a Buddhist shrine. She wanted to pray for my travels. I fidgeted as we waited in line for a turn to kneel before some hollow golden deity. The shaved monks droned on. Bored, I sneezed into the heavy sandalwood air and rubbed my eyes. We knelt down on a clothed plank. The golden deity smirked. Plates of oranges and joss paper loomed before me. Lit incense wedged between my palms.
Little red packets of peace glitter from potted shrubs in an open courtyard. Peace whistles above shrines, a knock of wood against chimes as wind slides across the tips of roofs. Etched into tombstones, peace guards the departed. A black imprint against a white banner around the heads of those in mourning, peace is a woman kneeling under a dome.
The brush dots the top-middle space of the page, like a tip of a hat. Lifts and restarts on the left. Dips down and up, creating the first hook of the dome. Then it pulls across a bar to the right before hooking down and out. A dome sits on top of woman. Capped and secured, she radiates peace to the eye.
Peace is not for those gone but for those still present. The dead remain present, a reminder for the living of the time left. The Chinese do not fear death or life after death, but time.
When I returned to Shanghai twenty years later, I visited my great- grandmother’s grave site, more out of curiosity than obligation. The mundanity of this day struck me: long bus ride, the trek to locate her row and slab, the first rainy day of monsoon season. Peace stood next to her gray marbled face on black marble. Her unflinching stare caught me. I offered her bread leftover from breakfast and mumbled my greeting in broken Chinese. Silently, I confessed how I envied her, her certainty in belonging to this land, in staying put in one place, in having a native tongue to scream out.
On the surface, a woman must appear calm and collected. Nothing is lost if silence is part of her composure. She cannot run away until someone releases her from the dome above.
I remember the smallness of my great-grandmother’s feet as they stretched out next to mine. Later, I learned that she had her feet bound as a child. Only rich women bound their feet. It was a luxury to not stand and work on your feet. I forgot what led her to stop wrapping bandages around her soles every night. But her feet were shrunk and shriveled by the time she met me. Hobbling along she follows me, her tiny cupped feet echoing the ungainly thud of my knees and palms.
Rage, or passionate anger, is a composite of three radicals:
The first top combination of 奴,which is also pronounced as nu, means slave:
又= (you) again
A slave is a bound female immobile until an outside force dictates her to fulfill tasks, over and over again.
心= (xin) heart
奴 gives the character its phonetic nu sound while 心 defines it. She, the slave, stands above the heart, a reminder of her presence. The heart, in turn, is a devoted slave to anger.
Rage, the devotion to anger, warns against excess. My mother spent decades tending to one man after another. After running away from my father, she chained herself to my stepfather. I do not know if it was fear or love that propelled her daily trips for a case of cheap beer. Watering my stepfather from morning to night, she tempered him with beer. Beer drunk, he was philosophical as the Buddha. At dusk, he mindlessly ate whatever my mother put in front of him and shook his head at my doomed future. He knew what was best for everyone, most of all, for me. What is the world coming to? he yelled to Mick Jagger’s voice. Listen to what this man has to say about life, and turned up Johnny Cash’s moans. His nights quietly withered into a faced-down form on an unmade bed.
The mind is never truly freed. I have heard that addicts are as predictable as storms: a collection of clumsy fumbles, raised voices, and drooped limbs as telltale as a change in air pressure. Having never met him sober, I have little to compare. Conversing with a drunk is like fighting with one’s shadow. Every sentence a rant about the wrong he experienced and who first wronged him. Insecurities show through the litany of his past achievements. As the youngest of three, he was used to playing victim to any open ear.
Liquor, unlike beer, has an uncanny resemblance to a ticking time bomb. At first, liquor warms the esophagus, as it spills into the stomach. The body is lulled into a false sense of calm and control. As liquor seeps into the liver, it winds an internal body clock. When his head shook as he rose up from his seat, he entered a state of slurred disorientation.
My mother never knew when to stop talking, even after she learned to recognize the signs. There was no ignoring a drunk in an enclosed space. When his friends came and liquor visited him, a lacquered dullness switched his eyes into navy pitch. Often the warning signs came too late. Sliding around to the polka beat, his heavy steps escalated words into actions. Sometimes Wagner rang to my mother’s muffled screams. Other times, staccato crescendos morphed her chokes into a soundtrack of body meeting drywall.
To indulge in an emotion is to never learn from a past experience. I remembered once staring at the streams of sunlight in the dusted cracks of my door, as I had slammed it in time to deflect a fist from my eye.
A composite of three radicals, rage is a mark of excess. The heart, a dominant rectangle below, holds the eye in warning. The triangular symmetry of this character is deceptive. Behind each of the nine strokes flows the implication of correctness, a cold rationalization of emotions. Pulling each black line down and across the white page invigorates the hand, wakes the brush to want more. Black fills the page. A swollen drop hangs over the heart, the point where moderation and excess converge before splintering.